Archive for the 'Iowa City' Category

Enchiladas for the journey

Remember how I said on Thursday night that I push deadlines but don’t miss them and that I’d report back about BlogHer, um, yesterday?

Well, make that tomorrow. The conference is still going on, it’s been an amazing weekend of networking and experiences and the occasional gratis glass of Prosecco (OK, maybe the occasional two glasses?), and I’ve gotten very little sleep because even when I get home, my brain is racing so hard I can’t get myself to go to bed.

And, in the meantime, I have a story to tell that has nothing to do with BlogHer, but is time-sensitive. Kalyn of Kalyn’s Kitchen has made some tweaks to the rules for Weekend Herb Blogging, and technically, this story fits under the rubric of the old rules rather than the new. The new rules go into effect this coming week, so today is my last day to sneak this in under the wire. Sure, I could just post it without participating in WHB, but where would be the camaraderie in that?

And see? I’m just making a deadline!

So, even though I’m writing this from a conference room on Union Square in San Francisco, this goes back to my last days in Iowa, for a recipe that, much like my move to California, is not so much specific measurements, and more a wing-and-prayer approach of combining things that go well together, tossing them in the oven to bake, and enjoying what comes out.

I spent the first half of my last week in Iowa in California, actually, looking for an apartment. It was a crazy weekend of hoofing it around Oakland, following leads off Craigslist and taking deep gulps at the rents and the deposits required to move in. I signed a lease that Tuesday evening, boarded a red-eye back to Cedar Rapids, and then crawled into bed as soon as I got home in an attempt to avoid the amount of packing I had to finish in three days.

Because the move happened so quickly, I didn’t really have a chance to properly eat down all the food in my fridge and freezer, and because the winter had been so fraught with delayed travel, I hadn’t been home enough or rested enough to manage the proper cooking program I usually maintain.

This meant I still had some slow-roasted tomatoes in the freezer, and as anyone who reads Kalyn or Alanna of Kitchen Parade knows, you don’t waste slow-roasted tomatoes.

I also had made my last visit to the Iowa City Farmer’s Market that Wednesday night, planning mainly to pick up a few gifts for the folks who would be hosting me on my journey west, but deciding, while I was there, to grab a bunch of locally-grown asparagus. Even though I knew I had to stop using my cooking gear and get it into boxes, the asparagus looked to good not to buy it.

So, on Thursday night, I told Betsy to make time for one last dinner cooked in my big Iowa kitchen. It was time for enchiladas, which, over the course of my last year in Iowa, became one of my favorite go-to comfort foods. Fast, easy and, as I made them, arguably not that unhealthy, I started making large batches every couple of weeks, taking the leftovers for lunch or, on days when the comfort was necessary earlier in the day, eating them for breakfast.

Spinach and slow-roasted tomatoes

Spinach and slow-roasted tomatoes

I use an informal recipe, so informal that I’m not going to write it out in traditional fashion. But trust me…anyone can do this. I pre-heated the oven to 375 degrees, then pulled out my stoneware 9” x 12” pan (stoneware’s not required). I sauteed the slow-roasted tomatoes and a bag of baby spinach over medium-high heat until the spinach wilted, then mixed the tomatoes and spinach in a bowl with a diced package of baked tofu (hickory flavored) and three or four spoonfuls of salsa. These ingredients, it should be noted, are not written in stone—if you like mushrooms, or chicken, or black beans, or corn, try any or all of that.

I rolled that filling into spelt tortillas, but you can use flour tortillas or even corn, although warming the corn tortillas first will help keep them from cracking as you roll them up. I placed each tortilla seam-down in the pan, nestling them against each other so they held each other together. I poured a 12-ounce bottle of Trader Joe’s enchilada sauce (that’s my favorite brand, but any enchilada sauce will do) over the top and then sprinkled the whole pan-full with shredded Colby Jack. Eyeball the cheese until it seems right to you – there are days when just a light touch works great, but other days when extra cheese makes all the difference. Gauge your own mood accordingly.

Then I baked them up, uncovered, for 20 minutes, until the cheese had melted and the sauce around the edges bubbled and hissed.

Enchiladas, between asparagus and avocado

Enchiladas, between asparagus and avocado

I also roasted that asparagus, and plated up the enchiladas with the Iowa asparagus on one side and sliced avocado, which just happened to have been flown in from California, on the other. Betsy and I ate dinner at the kitchen table gleaned from another friend who passed it along just when I needed it most, as the light faded over my garden in the back. There would be no more cooking in Iowa, but it seemed just the right dinner to end on: one that featured ingredients from both states, that I served to a friend in the kitchen I’d loved since I first walked into it, and that offered nutrition and comfort for the journey.

This is my post for Weekend Herb Blogging, which is hosted this week by Archana of Archana’s Kitchen. Please stop by later in the weekend for the full round-up of posts!

The great ice cream caper

In the carpool on the way home from work on a sunny and warm Wednesday back in April, my friends Betsy and Dan and I decided to go out for burgers. Snow had crept back in the forecast for early the next week, and we needed some ground beef and some sunshine to make ourselves feel better about the impending weather.

Mint chocolate chip

Mint chocolate chip

Over dinner, Dan and I fell back into our running argument about regionally- and locally-made ice cream: I maintain that Heyn’s is better than Whitey’s, and Dan is a Whitey’s guy through and through. We’d been fighting about this for weeks (because, really, what else would a couple of foodies fight about?), and finally Betsy called us on it.

“Why don’t you do a taste test tonight?” she said. “I’ll be the impartial observer.”

“It’s on,” I said.

We agreed to the terms: mint chocolate chip and chocolate chip cookie dough from Heyn’s, Whitey’s and Blue Bunny, a more commercial brand, yes, but still an Iowa-made product. (I should note, here, that when I wrote about locally-made ice cream for Edible Iowa River Valley, we left Whitey’s off the list—it is actually made in Illinois…) Dan and I would sample each flavor and try to identify which sample belonged to which ice cream maker, and then we would also rate which one we thought was the best.

The rating was less the issue, in this contest, than the fact that we both swore we could pick our favorites out of the line-up.

Ice cream acquired, Betsy readied our samples.

“Are you guys going to have a full scoop or just a bite?” Betsy asked.

“Scoop,” I said, and I thought, what else would we eat in a freaking ice cream taste test Imeancomeon.

“Uh, scoop,” Dan said. (I remember this because I wrote it down at the time. I am all about recording intelligent conversation for future blog purposes.)

“What’s the winner going to get?” I asked, very focused on my impending victory over Dan and his assertions.

“I think it’s really what the loser should have to do,” Dan said. “Maybe the loser should have to pay for all the ice cream. Or wear a sign at work tomorrow that says, ‘I lost the ice cream taste test. Ask me how.’”

“Maybe they should have to run outside and run around the house naked,” I said. “Or go to work … NAKED.” Again, I say: I was focused on victory, people. Victory.

Contemplating the chocolate cookie dough

Contemplating the chocolate cookie dough

But it turns out that was not the case. “You’re going to be very disappointed with my picture-taking abilities,” Betsy said when she returned from the kitchen with the first round: mint chocolate chip.

“It’s OK,” I said. “I’ll just tell everyone that the pictures were taken by a” (and here, I used finger-quotes) “Masters-degreed artiste.”

And so the tasting began. Cold stares flew across the living room. There were more cackles than talking. And, to be honest, after we tried the chocolate chip cookie dough and I decided that not only was I sure which one was Blue Bunny, but that I liked it the best, as well, I had lost a lot of confidence in my ability to pick out good ice cream. I could smell a loss, so I tried to cut back—a little—on the trash-talking.

When all was said and done, we both correctly identified who made each of the chocolate chip cookie dough variations, but I misidentified the mint chocolate chips. Dan, however, got that one right as well, garnering himself a win. He also took great glee in knowing that I chose a Blue Bunny flavor over two more locally-made options.

Evidence of my favorite...

Evidence of my favorite...

“Sometimes the best cook doesn’t have the best palate,” said Dan.

“Being a winner doesn’t mean you get to be mean,” said Betsy.

I sat there quietly, hoping they had forgotten my suggestion that the winner go to work naked.

Then they both turned to me with expectant looks on their faces. My stomach sank. Were they going to ask me to strip down and run around the house?

No. Much worse. They were expecting me to expose this loss to the world.

“What are you going to write when you put this on the blog, Genie?” Betsy asked. “That you failed? That you chose Blue Bunny?”

So yes, World. I failed. I chose Blue Bunny. And Dan never really got a trophy out of the deal, so today, his 30th birthday, seems like the appropriate day to mark his domination as an ice cream taste tester. Dan, I hope you’re able to put that skill to good use in future endeavors. And happy birthday, dude. Wish I was there to raise a glass—and an ice cream bowl—in your honor.

Dan, enjoying this

Your stories and pictures can help Midwestern farmers

By now, unless you live under a rock, you’re probably aware that Iowa is suffering from some of the worst floods in memory. I’ve been watching the news from Iowa City with my mouth hanging open, and have mostly relied on reports from the Iowa City Press-Citizen and the Cedar Rapids Gazette to keep me in the loop on the latest news about what’s under water.

Both newspapers are keeping unbelievable photo galleries, both from the ground and the air, up to date. And I’ve been hearing from friends who are sending their own photos around. For example, check out my friend Kelly’s round-up of photos from inside the Alliant Energy Corporate Communications department offices—I worked for almost a year and a half in the cubicle right next to Kelly’s, and can’t even imagine how long it’s going to take before she and the rest of my former co-workers can return to the office. The Alliant Energy tower, for those of you not familiar with Cedar Rapids, is right downtown, about a block from the Cedar River.

But the story that has not been told, that I have not seen reported, is the story about the small, local farmers that provide all the food I wasn’t able to grow in my own garden. These are the farmers that rely on the summer farmers’ markets to keep them going, the ones who aren’t involved in big, commercial agribusiness, the ones who don’t get a bunch of government subsidies or crop insurance to cover their flood-damaged produce.

They are not forgotten. There is a movement afoot to raise money for these folks, and for anyone in the Iowa farming community affected by the flooding. I’ll have more information on how you can help, from wherever you may be, as soon as there’s information to share. In the meantime, though, I’d like to put out a call for photos, videos and stories about farms and farmers in Iowa and Wisconsin affected by the flood.

I’ve volunteered to be one of the collection points for this material, which will be used only for purposes of fundraising and possibly in an upcoming issue of Edible Iowa River Valley. There is no compensation available in return, but your contribution of your material will help raise awareness on behalf of these struggling farmers and those who work for them. In addition, while the details are still being worked out, any material submitted will be forwarded on to the appropriate organization for archival and historical purposes.

Please email anything you have (or links to where the material is located online) to genie (at) theinadvertentgardener (dot) com. Please include in your email a statement that notes you give your permission for the material to be republished without financial compensation.

More information will come as soon as I have it. Thanks so much, in advance, for your help with this project. And please feel free to forward this to anyone you know in the Midwest. The more stories and pictures we have to illustrate the devastation as it has affected farms, the better we can tell the story and, in turn, help the folks who have nowhere else to turn.

Tools to grow tomatoes

My exit out of Iowa happened almost faster than I could have imagined. I made a trip out to California to visit a friend in mid-April, and at the time, my party line was that I was looking for jobs and might move out here, might not.

Two weeks later, I flew out for an interview. Two weeks after, I flew out to find an apartment. Two weeks additional, and I was walking through the door of my new place.

This weekend will mark my second in the area, and it still feels more like I’m on some kind of vacation, or work trip, or something—I am constantly having these moments where I catch myself thinking I’m just a visitor, just passing through, bound for the airport any day now.

A few people asked me what I was going to do with my plants. Dig them up? Take them with me? Well, besides the lavender plant, the truth is that I didn’t have anything but annuals planted, and the idea of digging up a bunch of lettuce to carry with me in the car simply wasn’t appealing. I love to eat lettuce, and therefore I refuse to develop a personal relationship with it.

But I am a woman who likes her stuff, and so I expected to want to take all my garden accoutrements with me.

As I found myself taking inventory of the various tools, pots, stakes and cages in my possession, I was surprised to discover I didn’t really have that much attachment to any of them, and to be honest, I didn’t have time to get them all cleaned in time to feel like they were worth packing.

There were some things I kept, of course—for two Christmases in a row, Susan has given me great gardening gifts: monogrammed gloves this past year, and a really cute little gardening toolkit the year before. Those made it into the packing rotation. But the big stuff? Because I knew so little about what my gardening situation would be when I landed in the East Bay, it just didn’t make a lot of sense to take them all with me.

I have long been a fan of Freecycle, and its mission to keep things out of landfills that might otherwise end up there, and so that’s where I turned. I emailed a woman asking for pots and gave her a heads up that I had a bunch available. Within a couple of days, all my pots made their way out of my driveway in the back of her car.

Tools to Give AwayThen I saw someone post that they were looking for a garden shovel, so I wrote the woman to tell her I had one available, and, incidentally, was she looking for anything else? She wrote me back to tell me her 11-year-old wanted to learn to garden, and she wanted to help him, so anything would be helpful. I gathered up what I had left and leaned it all against the front porch.

The woman’s father came to pick everything up on one of the days I was home packing. “Really? All this?” he said. “This is great.”

We carried it to his car, where he told me he and his wife were visiting from Maryland. “My daughter’s a single Mom,” he said. “She’s got two boys, so she can use a lot of help. She’s going to put all this to good use. She wants to grow tomatoes.”

Truth is, I would have given the tools away to anyone who wanted them. But I’m glad they went to someone who really needed them—especially to someone who wanted to use them to pass on the gift of a fresh, homegrown tomato to her kids.

Green Thumb Sunday: My last look at the Iowa garden

One last look at my Iowa garden

Gardeners, plant and nature lovers can join in Green Thumb Sunday every week. Visit As the Garden Grows for more information.

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